Since last summer, a brutal war on drugs has been waged in the Philippines at the behest of President Duterte. More than 7,000 people have been killed, predominantly in poorer neighborhoods. Over one million have turned themselves in to authorities only to languish in inhumane and overcrowded detention facilities. 18,000 children have become orphans, their parents murdered in the war on drugs. Human rights defenders have been threatened, with Duterte vowing to kill them himself. Duterte verbally attacks anyone who questions his tactics, including former President Barack Obama, the Pope, the International Criminal Court, and the United Nations.
And now, in a chilling move meant to crack down on domestic political opposition, Senator Leila de Lima has been arrested. Senator de Lima, who has served as the Secretary of the Department of Justice and as the Chair of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, is the most vocal political opponent to Duterte’s drug war.
In August, Senator de Lima led a series of hearings in the Senate Committee on Justice and Human Rights on the murders of thousands of people suspected of being involved in using or selling drugs. She also called for international intervention to end the extrajudicial killings, even after she received harassment and threats from Duterte and other government officials after the Senate hearings.
Moreover, when Senator de Lima was chairing the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, she led an investigation into the extrajudicial killings of over 1,000 people involved in drug use or sale in Davao City under Duterte’s mayorship, which resulted in an official recommendation that the Office of the Ombudsman investigate Duterte’s “possible administrative and criminal liability” in connection to the Davao killings.
On Friday, Senator de Lima was arrested and charged with involvement in the drug trade in a Filipino prison. De Lima staunchly denies the charges, saying she has become Duterte’s first political prisoner. She also points to the suspicious timing of her arrest, which occurred shortly after new evidence surfaced that connected Duterte to the “Davao Death Squads”. Last week, a former Davao police officer testified that Duterte personally paid assassins between $400 and $2,000 for each suspected drug user they killed. De Lima maintains that her arrest was an attempt to distract from this news and to intimidate others into staying silent about Duterte’s egregious tactics.
When the warrant for her arrest was issued, de Lima told reporters, “I will go with them voluntarily. It is my honor to be jailed for what I am fighting for. If they think that by jailing me, I will turn my back on my principles, they are mistaken. Instead, they have encouraged me more to pursue truth and justice."
Duterte’s murderous war on drugs should constitute crimes against humanity. The arrest of Senator Leila de Lima is a terrifying move to silence courageous voices defending the human rights of those caught in the crosshairs of Duterte’s war.